The common path that governed the evolution of human societies across the globe

21 December 2017

Today’s world is populated by large, sophisticated, densely populated, and technologically advanced nation-states. But how did such complex social formations arise? And why do so many different states share so many features of governance and structure?

To answer these questions, researchers systematically gathered historical information on around 400 different past societies from the last 10,000 years, sampling from 30 regions spanning the entire globe. The researchers took in every society from Egypt's old kingdom pyramid builders to Viking kingdoms in medieval Iceland, and by way of the great kingdoms of Angkor Wat in South East Asia.

After analysing the data they pinpointed a single dimension of 'social complexity' that can meaningfully measure the developmental trajectories of all societies explored in the sample. In other words, they found a set of general principles that apparently govern the evolution of human society.

The research has just been published in leading international journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  

This work is the result of years of research conducted by a large, international team of evolutionary scientists, historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists led by Peter Turchin and Thomas Currie.

Senior Research Fellow in Trinity College Dublin’s School of Computer Science and Statistics, Dr Kevin Feeney, led the information technology effort by developing a platform for collecting and curating the massive, complex dataset. Dr Feeney’s team has made the entire dataset available as linked open data at http://dacura.scss.tcd.ie/seshat.  

Dr Feeney said: “Understanding how we got to our modern world is the critical first step in showing us where we are heading next. The single dimension of ‘social complexity’ that measures societal development is made up of nine highly correlated characteristics, incorporating 51 separate features, from the size of the society to its economic sophistication, administrative capacity, informational technology, and others.”

“The majority of previous studies in this area have focused on only one or two 'primary' characteristics in an attempt to explain social development. Our approach has led to this exciting new understanding that social development requires an intricate co-evolution of numerous, seemingly disparate traits.”

“Our findings also highlight the power of the sciences and humanities working together to rigorously test hypotheses about general rules that may have shaped human history.”

The data used in this project come from the Seshat: Global History Databank, directed by Peter Turchin, Harvey Whitehouse, Pieter Francois, Thomas Currie, and Kevin Feeney. The Seshat project gathers information from past societies in order to rigorously test different hypotheses about the rise and fall of large-scale societies across the globe, and over the course of human history. Seshat seeks to bring together in one place the largest collection of data on our shared human past that has ever been assembled.

This project was supported by a John Templeton Foundation grant; a Tricoastal Foundation grant; an ESRC Large Grant; an Advanced Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme; a grant from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme [ALIGNED, www.aligned-project.eu].

Media Contact

Thomas Deane, Press Officer for the Faculty of Engineering, Mathematics and Science | deaneth@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 4685

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